How to recognize and prevent shoulder injuries

How to recognize and prevent shoulder injuries

Pitchers are no strangers to the risk of shoulder injuries. While pro athletes are usually good at spotting early signs of a shoulder problem, youth players and weekend warriors might be caught off guard by shoulder pain and injury.

Here are some tips for spotting and preventing shoulder injuries, courtesy of Robin West, MD. West serves as lead team physician for the Washington Nationals, head team physician for the Washington Redskins, and chairman of Inova Sports Medicine, the official hospital network and sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals.

Located in Fairfax, Va., the Inova Sports Medicine team offers comprehensive, personalized care for athletes of all ages and activity levels. Their focus on injury prevention, recovery and performance makes them a perfect fit for the Nationals' focus on comprehensive care for players.

Shoulder Injuries to Watch For
Unsurprisingly, pitchers are particularly vulnerable to shoulder injuries. Yet any athlete who throws a ball can experience these problems, West said. Common injuries include:

  • Growth plate injuries: Also known as "Little League shoulder," this is an overuse injury caused by repetitive stress. It occurs when inflammation develops around the growth plate in the upper part of the humerus bone. "It's the most common shoulder injury in growing athletes," West said.
  • SLAP tears: Short for superior labrum anterior and posterior tears, this injury occurs when the biceps tendon starts to peel back from the bone inside the shoulder. It's more common in people who are at or nearing skeletal maturity, usually around age 15 or older, West explained.
  • Rotator cuff tears: Throwing athletes can experience partial tears or fraying of the rotator cuff, a group of muscles that attaches the humerus to the shoulder blade.
  • Impingement: This injury occurs when the rotator cuff becomes compressed between bones or other structures in the shoulder. It can happen when the rotator cuff becomes fatigued by overuse.

Diagnosis and Treatment
Shoulder injuries often begin with weakness and a decrease in pitching accuracy and velocity. "When I talk to athletes, they say those symptoms start first. They often just have a sense that something is different," West said. "And then the pain starts."

Athletes with those red flags should be proactive about talking to their athletic trainer, if they have one, West said. "If you're not improving with their care, or you're not improving after a few days of relative rest, I recommend seeing a doctor."

When shoulder problems are caught early, they can usually be corrected with physical therapy before they progress to more serious injuries.

Preventing Damage
Athletes both young and old can also take steps to prevent shoulder injuries. Here are some tips on how:

  • Make sure to warm up: Do some stretching and easy throwing before practice sessions or games.
  • Rotate positions: Youth athletes should rotate positions so they're not just pitching all the time.
  • Take time off to rest your joints: "For children, we recommend they avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons," West said.
  • Adhere to Little League pitch count guidelines: These are designed to prevent overuse injuries in young players. "When kids are playing on multiple teams, parents should pay close attention to make sure their child's total pitch count doesn't exceed the limit," West said.
  • Focus on mechanics: In younger players, avoid radar guns to measure pitch velocity. "As they're learning to pitch, kids should focus on good control and mechanics, not speed," West said.
  • Don't ignore the pain: "Playing through pain will alter your mechanics, and either worsen the injury or cause another injury," West said. "Adult players might expect some soreness after a game, but that shouldn't last more than a couple of days," West said. And kids should never experience pain from sports. "Kids play for fun. They should never come home and have to ice their shoulder," she said.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 703-970-6464 or visit Inova Sports Medicine.